I'll give my bona fides up front: I am a longtime TNC reader, first-time commenter, working comedian in the Bay Area, and sexual assault survivor. The rape joke issue is old hat to women in standup -- the idea that 'rape jokes' are an edgy or unique category of comedy is belied by the fact that just about EVERY comic I know, male or female, has at least one in their repertoire. I have one about the casual use of the word 'rape' in other cultural contexts, and another about how I stopped going to church after I got raped by a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I'm OK with CK's joke, although I also agree with the letter writer.
Much of comedy is about context. There are jokes I tell in San Francisco that might get me run out of a club on the road; there are jokes I can tell in Oakland that I can't tell in San Francisco, and vice versa -- maybe 'can't tell' is overstating the case, but different jokes work in different contexts.
I've told jokes about race in San Francisco that have made me feel uncomfortable and irresponsible when an all-white audience laughs, because I wonder if they understand everything that's going on underneath the punchline. Similarly, CK's joke can probably play well in some areas, and leave him walking off the stage feeling like he just gave cover and comfort to rapists in others. This is the nature of comedy; audiences are not universal and we can't control for what they'll bring to a show.
That being said, thoughtfulness is always important, even in comedy. Comics only become good comics when their jokes are rigorous and well-tested -- it sounds completely antithetical to everything about comedy, but where CK and Morgan differ is that cruelty isn't a punchline. It can be part of a punchline, but there has to be something SURPRISING about it. Jokes operate on surprise. Although I agree with the letter-writer about rape culture, it is nonetheless improper in polite society to offer such open justification about rape; to most people it's surprising to actually hear, even if it is something lurking in all kinds of cultural shadows, even if some people will find literal validation of their own evil within it.
Conversely, ranting about gay people just isn't that surprising in many places, particularly in TN. I heard from a few friends who saw Morgan's show in SF and said that he did the same bit and got laughs -- maybe because in San Francisco, hearing an over-the-top anti-gay rant is surprising. In most of the country, however, that's not true.
Oh, and to the folks justifying Tracy Morgan by saying they heard he was just 'working out' new material: no, he wasn't. Comics 'work out' new material at open mics -- even the biggest names swing by open mics to drop new jokes -- and tiny clubs in New York and LA where they're amongst other comics who can critique them. They DO NOT work out new material whilst on national tour in front of audiences who have paid top dollar to see them. Being a comedian might seem like a barrel of monkeys, but it's a professional craft and performance like any other.
What I like about this comment is that it points to the fluid nature, across geography, of comedy. But there's also a fluidity across time.
I was, early on, extremely offended by Chis Rock's "Niggers vs. Black People" routine. I read it through an overly-political lens, which, I now think, says more about me than about the joke. My sense was that Rock conveniently papered over the ease with which black people are turned into "niggers" and vice versa. It struck me as ghetto snobbery. (I can't find the video, but I believe that's what Rock called it himself during a 60 Minutes interview.)
I now think it's a rather deft exploration of a real tension that exists among black that is tied to class, but shouldn't be understood as such. No one resents crime more than the people who live with it regularly. I also think that it was riff on the kind of tensions that virtually all people exhibit. Talk to some old heads in Chicago and they'll insist that the early black folks who came up during the Great Migration were of a better stock--hard workers, employable etc. The folks who came up in the 50s were the criminals, the unskilled and the layabouts.
It's also exhibited in white people's own tension over identity reflected in slurs like "white trash" or "redneck." I don't know much about Jews, Latinos and Asian-Americans, but I'd be shocked if it wasn't, in some way, there among them too. In short, far from denigrating, I thought the riff was incredibly humanizing in that it showed black people struggling with the same sort of identity problems that plague all groups.
Politics has an important relationship to art, but its a bad idea to read it as rote political theory. Did the act reflect some of Rock's actual feelings? I'm sure there's some of him in there. But that's the beauty of it. "I love black people, but I hate niggers," says something about us, perhaps something not so pretty, and yet beautiful. It certainly reflected some of my own frustrated private thoughts.(I really related to the "Can you kick my ass?!?!!" at the end.)
I understand why Rock stopped performing that joke--it feels like a riff made for a house full of black people. The trouble is that it's quite funny, and humor evinces little respect for our boundaries. Though I wish it were different, I can't say that I offer my full, unvarnished thoughts on black people here. I give quite a bit. But to coin a phrase, this is not a safe space for me or anyone else. We are family--but we kinda aren't.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.
Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.